By Carol D. Leonnig and Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
U.S. authorities said yesterday that Afghan officials have detained since mid-July an 11-year-old U.S. citizen, the son of a Pakistani woman accused of firing at Afghan and U.S. personnel there.
In a letter to the family of Aafia Siddiqui, a suspected al-Qaeda operative who is in U.S. custody, federal prosecutors said photos and DNA tests strongly suggest that the youngster in Afghan custody is Siddiqui's son, Ahmed. The boy was detained July 18 when Afghan police arrested Siddiqui in what they described as a shootout near a government compound in Ghazni.
Siddiqui and her three children disappeared in Pakistan in 2003, and the case has been a cause celebre there ever since, prompting protests in Siddiqui's home town of Karachi and dozens of editorials in local papers. In the midst of an uproar over the disappearances of Pakistani suspects this summer, Afghan officials said they had captured Siddiqui after she fired on the compound. She is now in a federal prison in New York, charged with attempted murder.
The FBI had spent years seeking information on Siddiqui, a U.S.-educated neuroscientist who officials feared was an al-Qaeda operative with knowledge of biological weapons. During that time, federal prosecutors and FBI officials have told Siddiqui's mother, Ismat, they had no information on the location of Siddiqui or her children, an attorney for the family said yesterday.
The lawyers and Siddiqui family members yesterday questioned the U.S. government's account that Siddiqui had resurfaced five years after disappearing with her three young children in Pakistan and that she escaped Afghan and U.S. agents after she was taken into custody.
Siddiqui's family contended that the young mother and children were imprisoned during at least some of that time at a secret site, possibly by Afghan or Pakistani officials working in concert with the CIA. Her two younger children, who are also U.S. citizens and were 6 months and 5 years old when they disappeared, are still unaccounted for.
"Something is really dirty here. Everything about the government's story smells," said Elizabeth Fink, Siddiqui's attorney, who said her client was psychologically traumatized over an extended period of time. "Whatever happened to this woman is terrible, and it's incumbent on us to find out what it was."
The CIA and the Justice Department denied that the United States had been holding Siddiqui or her children.
"As the Department of Justice has made clear, Ms. Siddiqui was not in U.S. custody before she was detained on July 17, 2008," said CIA spokesman George Little. "Any suggestion that the CIA would imprison her children is wrong and offensive. Had we known where Ms. Siddiqui was prior to her capture, we would have shared that information with our partners in this country and overseas. She was a fugitive from American justice."
Siddiqui, 36, studied behavioral sciences at MIT in the 1990s. By 2004, U.S. officials had dubbed her al-Qaeda's "Mata Hari" and admitted they began watching her as a possible terrorism suspect in 2001 while she lived in Boston with her husband. Soon after Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, was captured in 2003, Siddiqui and her three children vanished from a street corner in Karachi.
Siddiqui's attorneys said they spoke with her after she was moved to New York earlier this month. Siddiqui will petition a federal court to have Ahmed placed in the custody of her brother in Texas, Fink said.
Fink and Elaine Whitfield Sharp, a lawyer for the Siddiqui family, said Aafia Siddiqui bears little resemblance to the woman in 2002 family photographs. Her nose has been broken, her lips and skin are deeply chapped, her face has a deathly pallor, and she is only periodically lucid, they said.
Ismail Jahangir, a spokesman for the governor of Ghazni province in Afghanistan, said Monday that the Afghan Interior Ministry took the boy into custody the same day Siddiqui was arrested. Jahangir said the governor's office was not aware of what happened to the boy after he was handed over to the Interior Ministry.
An Interior Ministry official reached by phone in Kabul said Ahmed was held by the ministry for a day, then taken into custody by the Afghan National Security Directorate, an intelligence agency.
"We kept the boy for 24 hours because we do not have a right to hold him longer than that," an Interior Ministry official said. "We sent him to the National Security Directorate, and I don't know what happened to the boy after that."
U.S. agents said the boy initially told them he was an orphan, according to the prosecutors' letter to Siddiqui's family.
The Afghan National Security Directorate has worked closely with CIA officials since the war in Afghanistan began in 2001. The agency has acted as the lead liaison in dozens of high-level detainee cases involving Afghan prisoners, including investigations involving detainees recently returned from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the U.S.-run prison at the Bagram air base in Afghanistan.
Pakistan's government, meanwhile, has made aggressive public appeals on Siddiqui's behalf. Earlier this month, the country's parliament passed a resolution calling for her immediate repatriation to Pakistan. Late last week, an official with Pakistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the government plans to send a delegation to Washington to look into her case.
Rondeaux reported from Islamabad, Pakistan. Staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.